There is a potentially serious division among faithful Catholics about how to respond to “The Joy of – ” . I can certainly understand the argument of those, such as Joseph Shaw and Fr Ray Blake, who warn us not to make too much of it, lest we play into the hands of the opposition. By creating the perception that the pope is undermining doctrine, they say, you will strengthen those who wish to undermine doctrine; better to point out, rather, that AL makes no change to canon law, and does not say in plain words, ‘those in invalid marriages can receive Holy Communion if their pastors think it helpful’.

But my question to people who think like this is: “Independently of what we say about the matter, is the pope undermining doctrine or is he not?” If we think that he is, there needs to be an adequate response. Now the New Testament gives us an example of a pope undermining doctrine, and of the adequate response that was made to it.

When St Peter began at Antioch ‘not to walk correctly according to the truth of the Gospel’ (Gal. 2: 14), St Paul did not content himself with preaching the truth that was being undermined. He did not limit himself to saying in sermons or letters that Gentiles could be true Christians without being circumcised. Rather, he ‘withstood’ or ‘resisted’ Peter directly, asking him in public how he could act as he was doing. He realised that a simple statement of doctrine was not enough in those circumstances to keep that doctrine safe.

Pope Francis, unfortunately, is also undermining a truth of the gospel, namely the indissolubility of marriage, by encouraging debate about a matter that has never been uncertain, by praising the most notorious advocate of the heretical opinion, by issuing a document clearly designed not to teach the true opinion, and by giving free rein to those who use this document to uphold the heretical opinion. A striking example of this last thing is the editorial of Fr Spadaro SJ in La Civilta Cattolica, ‘the pope’s magazine’. Fr Spadaro writes: “The exhortation incorporates from the synodal document the path of discernment of individual cases without putting limits on integration, as appeared in the past.” Sandro Magister notes in the article I have linked to that Fr Spadaro is a closer adviser and confidant of the pope, and adds:

The presentation that Spadaro made of it in “La Civiltà Cattolica” was given to Francis to read before it was sent to press. One more reason to take this exegesis of the document as authorized by him, and therefore revealing of his real intentions.

For these reasons, I do not think it will be enough in the present crisis, for bishops simply to repeat the orthodox teaching. That does not particularly bother the other side: ‘pastoral pluralism’, after all, is enough for these people, and they are ready to wait for the rigid bishops to reach retirement age and then to be replaced by more accommodating and joyful ones.

Doubtless, if there were a unanimity or quasi-unanimity of bishops clearly teaching the traditional position, then it would not be necessary to make a protest about AL; but in the absence of that unanimity, a unanimity which already seems impossible, the undermining of marriage will go on, and AL’s part in that will need to be publicly confronted.

So I believe that in the present emergency it will soon be necessary for some bishop, or better, many bishops, to withstand the pope publicly, clearly, respectfully, courageously.